Witchduck Road and Grace Sherwood

I would be a total idiot if I did not include the story of Grace Sherwood, the Witch of Pungo, and the reason for Witchduck Road.

The story about Grace is a lot like Kool-Aid:  You have your bright purple sugar packet and a pitcher of water.  The water is the truth; the sugar is all the legends and embellishments and lies.  After you mix the two together, you get something totally new…  And something that can never really be divided again into its component parts, no matter how hard you try.  Most of what I’m about to say is a big ole pitcher of Purple Drank, because we have no way to know otherwise.

You’ve been warned.

TLDR:

If you’re not from Virginia Beach, let me bring you up to speed:  in 1705, a woman named Grace Sherwood was accused of witchcraft.  The court ordered her to be bound and thrown into the Lynnhaven River.  She survived, and lived a quiet life thereafter.

The little dirt track that lead to her dunking site became forever after known as Witchduck Road.  The modern day site of her ducking is now a neighborhood called Witchduck Point.

If you’re looking closely, you can see little markers of her existence scattered around the city.  There’s a statue in her honor outside the old Bayside Hospital.  There’s a marker about her life somewhere on Princess Anne Road.  The foundations of her homestead are still here, but overgrown somewhere in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

That’s the verified truth about Grace.  Let’s dive into the rest.

🎵🎵 How Do You Solve a Problem Like Grace Sherwood🎵🎵

🎵How do you catch a witch and duck her down?🎵

Statue of Grace Sherwood outside of the old Bayside Hospital.

She was born in Princess Anne County in 1660.  She married in 1680 and had a small farm.  She was born here, she was married here, she lived her entire life here, and she died here.  But more importantly…

Grace Sherwood annoyed the hell out of her neighbors.

From the 1690s onwards, Grace was in and out of court constantly.  She was accused of killing livestock.  Hexing cotton crops.  Spiritual assaults.  People thought she could teleport through keyholes.  On one occasion, someone claimed she turned herself into a tiny black cat with a whip and whipped them out of their bed.2  (I guess the origins of BDSM are older than I thought.)     

What surprises me most about these accusations is that the local courts apparently saw them for what they were: a way to harass another citizen without much proof.  Where the records still exist, they show that her accusers’ cases were quickly dismissed, or the courts chose not to deliver decisions.3   This, I suppose, is the legalese way of shrugging and saying “PPFFTTTT. WHATEVER.”

After each of these accusations, Grace counter-sued her accuser for defamation.  She often won.  These cases were also resolved quickly.

Late in 1705, Grace’s neighbor Elizabeth Hill attacked Grace.  Grace immediately had her up on charges for assault and battery, and asked for restitution. In December of 1705, Grace won a judgement for 20 shillings – that’s about $250 in today’s money.

After losing their case, the Hills fought back immediately.  Late in December of 1705, they told the court that Grace had used witchcraft to cause Elizabeth Hill to have a miscarriage.4

This is the point where everything escalates out of control.

Time Out

All of Grace’s previous cases had been resolved quickly.  Why was this time different?  Why did the court treat it so seriously?  Why couldn’t the Hill family let this go?  

Let’s imagine that we are Grace Sherwood’s neighbor.  

Grace had a nasty relationship with Luke Hill.  Maybe she pooped in his yard, or yelled at somebody’s kid to get off her lawn.  Then Grace and Elizabeth got into a fistfight.  It was the last straw, and I can easily imagine her accuser screaming in Honeymooners style “So help me God Luke, if that woman bothers us ONE MORE TIME, I swear I will call out a warrant for witchcraft.  ONE MORE TIME!”

But her angry neighbors had a hurdle.  Many had accused Grace of witchcraft before and failed.  They certainly couldn’t run to the sheriff and whine about a Phantom Pooper.  They had to have a charge that would finally turn other people against her.  Something that would stick.  So how do you get the authorities to take you seriously and finally take action once and for all?

You allege an unprovable murder. 6

The previous accusations of witchcraft were fundamentally different.  The damages suffered seemed more temporary.  The court could easily tell Grace’s accusers to buy another cow.  Wait for another piglet to be born.  Grow another field of wheat.

The court could not replace Mrs. Hill’s lost baby.

After Time Out, I’ll show that the Hill family hounded Grace Sherwood through the legal system, making sure the case stayed alive after the local court tried to drop it, and even petitioning the Governor to get involved. 

Why couldn’t the Hill family let this go?  Simple: they were out for blood.

The Not-Trial of Grace Sherwood

The oldest records available about Grace Sherwood’s ordeal are the Princess Anne County Court records.  They are incomplete (there was a pesky Civil War that burned them up), but they are fascinating.5

Despite the best efforts of Luke and Elizabeth Hill, the courts were reluctant to pursue the murder-via-witchcraft charges.  The judges, county officials, and even the Governor’s Council dragged their feet at every step.  

At the first court appearance on January 3rd, 1706, Grace didn’t even show up.  This was a strategic mistake, because the court then ordered she be imprisoned in the county jail until the next session.  It also seems that they forgot to charge her with anything.  Oopsie!

At the second court appearance in February, there was a lengthy debate about what to do.  Again, nothing was decided. Perhaps at a loss, the Justices ordered that Grace come back to court in March.  In the meantime, the Sheriff was ordered to summon a jury of women to search Grace’s body for marks and to report their findings.

At the third session on March 7th, the findings of Grace’s search were revealed.  The completely unbiased Jury of Women (headed by Grace’s very first witchcraft accuser, Elizabeth Barnes), declared that they had found at least 2 suspicious marks.  Despite these findings, the court did nothing.  There is no record of a penalty or a dismissal.  Grace probably walked free.

The historical marker near the site of her ducking.

The first episode of Law & Order: Special Witches Unit had ended.  Luke and Elizabeth Hill must have been incandescent with rage.  The local Justices of the Peace were trying to sweep the whole thing under the rug, but the Hills weren’t having it.

Late in March of 1706, Luke Hill petitioned the Governor and his Council.  He explained the Princess Anne County Court’s lack of action, and begged the Attorney General to prosecute Grace Sherwood for her crimes in a higher court.  In April, the Attorney General responded – rather than take up the prosecution himself, he directed the local authorities do the whole thing over again.  And this time, he suggested they charge her with a crime.  And maybe do a real investigation.  For Grace, the whole rodeo was starting over again.  

On May 2nd, the Court cited the Attorney General’s report and ordered that Grace be taken to jail until the next session in June.  They ordered a new Jury of Women to examine her.  They ordered a second Jury of Women to search her house and look for evidence of witchcraft.  And they asked for a Crown Representative to make the case on behalf of the Hills.  (Curiously, this had not already happened.)

On June 6th, Luke Hill testified against Grace.  (Why didn’t he testify before?  His wife was the afflicted one, why didn’t Elizabeth take the stand?)  On June 7th, the Court asked the Sheriff for the results of the new examination and the property search by the two Juries of Women.

He didn’t have them.  The Sheriff had impaneled two different groups of women for the tasks.  They had all refused to participate.  No one was willing to help the court in its dirty work.  Episode two of Law & Order: Special Witches Unit was just as disappointing for the Hills.

Hearing this, the Justices ordered all of the women to be held in Contempt.  A new Jury of Women would be called.  Grace was ordered back to prison until the next court session in July.

On July 5th, the Court reconvened and learned that, once again, no women were willing to join the Jury to examine Grace. 

So there was no new evidence.  The court was stuck in idle.  Again.  At this point, there’s a note of exasperation in the court records.  They had been trying to proceed for six months.  The Attorney General for the Colony of Virginia had ordered them to shit or get off the pot, but there was no compelling evidence in either direction.  The local people weren’t cooperating anymore.  Luke and Elizabeth Hill wouldn’t shut up and go away.  And Grace had been rotting in jail for 2 months.

Grace had had enough.  The Court had had enough.  On July 5th, they struck a bargain.  Dun dun!

Totally Ducked

The Princess Anne County court records ordering Grace Sherwood to be ducked. Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society.

Therefore it was Ordrd that this Day by her own Consent to be tried in the water by Ducking, but the weather being Rainy and Bad Soe that possibly it might endanger her health it is therefore ordrd that the Sherr request the Justices precisely to appear on wednessday next by tenn of the Clock the Court house and that he Secure the body of the Sd till that time to be forth Coming then to be Dealt wth afore sd.7

This part of the story is a revelation.

When I was a child hearing this story for the first time, this was presented completely differently.  Grace was thrown into the river and she survived by some miracle.  She certainly didn’t consent to be thrown in.  But here, we have evidence that she agreed to this.  We have evidence that the Justices arranged this bit of theatre with her safety in mind. 

The ducking was not her sentence after a trial, the ducking was a bit of pre-trial maneuvering to further establish guilt or innocence, to move her on to a full trial or exonerate her completely.

Anyway.

The court ordered her to be ducked on July 10th, which gave five days notice to everyone in the county who might want to go and watch.  That was enough time for the anticipation to ratchet into the stratosphere.  I wonder – when Grace emerged from the jail to be taken out on the river that day, was she greeted like Charles Manson?  Or did people see her as a victim?

On July 10th, 1706, she was removed from the jail and a procession left the courthouse and headed for a prepared site on the Lynnhaven River.  It is said that huge throngs of people crowded the riverbanks to get a glimpse of the action.

An aerial view of Witch Duck Point today.

For those that couldn’t see at the back of the crowds, it’s easy to imagine a Howard Cosell-type Monday Night Football narration:  “Sherwood is in the boat… the Sheriff makes the handoff… SHERWOOD IS IN THE WATER… SHERWOOD IS IN THE WATER… a big splash… SHE’S FLOATING…SHE’S A WITCH!  SHERWOOD IS A WITCH!”

At this point, just for good measure, the Sheriff apparently beaned Grace with a heavy Bible to see if she’d sink.  She did, rather like anyone else in deep water who gets a ten pound weight chucked at their head.

Once they were sure of the result, they hauled her back to shore and had a council of “five antient weomen” examine her.  They again claimed she had some dark marks that weren’t normal.

The Justices were finally convinced of her guilt.  She was remanded to the Sheriff’s custody and told to await her “Future Tryall.”

There is no record of this future trial.  It’s unclear if the trial happened or if the charges were dismissed.  There is no record of Luke or Elizabeth Hill’s reaction.  

After the ducking, Grace lived 34 more years and was never accused of witchcraft again.

 


Notes & Sources

1  I used to think this theory was ludicrous (who has the energy to get upset about fashion?), but then I started paying attention to all the modern day grief and violence that accompanies transexuals who wear the “wrong” clothing.  Now this theory doesn’t seem so farfetched.

2  I can’t decide if this is a very early manifestation of BDSM or if someone had a vision of the future and saw Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman.

3 To me, this smacks of paternalism: “Oh these country bumpkins are at it again!  When will they stop?”

4 Though heavily implied, it is never stated outright… Did the assault cause Elizabeth Hill’s miscarriage?  Or did she miscarry after Grace won her day in court?

5 The gears of 18th century justice moved a bit differently.  Instead of appearing before one judge, Grace had to appear before a panel of Justices of the Peace.  These men were prominent local officials, often ship captains or members of the militia, and they convened once a month on behalf of the Crown.  I was surprised that some names were already familiar to me: Adam Thoroughgood (a descendant of the local legend), Richardson, Woodhouse, etc.

6 There are lots of advantages to this.    

  1. She has to strip naked and be examined, possibly more than once.
  2. There was no need for evidence of a crime, because Ghostbusters hadn’t come out yet and nobody would have known to look for pink goo in the subway.
  3. She has to go to court, which is a nuisance and far away from home.  Even if she wins, it still costs her time and money to appear.
  4. You get to testify in court, and let everyone know how horrible she is.  
  5. If she loses, she’s humiliated, fined, maybe jailed, and possibly thrown overboard into a muddy swamp.  She might even die.

7 There was a belief in those days that water – an element of holy baptism – was a pure substance.  Therefore, it would reject a witch and bob her back to the surface.  If Grace were innocent, the water would accept her and she would sink.  Grace popped back to the top of the water like a cork.


Cushing, Jonathan.  Collections of the Virginia Historical and Philosophical Society, vol 1. TW White, 1833.  Google Books.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  “Witchcraft and Evil Spirits.”  Something from the Cellar, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2005, pp. 88-90.  Google Books.

James, Edward W. “Grace Sherwood, the Virginia Witch.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 2, 1894, pp. 96–101. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1914583.

Newman, Lindsey.  “Under an Ill Tongue: Witchcraft and Religion in Seventeenth Century Virginia.”  MA Thesis, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2009.

“The Virginia Case of Grace Sherwood, 1706.” Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, edited by George Lincoln Burr, Charles Scribner & Sons Press, 1914, pp. 433-442.  Google Books.

Witkowski, Monica C. “Grace Sherwood (ca. 1660–1740).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 2 Feb. 2018.

 

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